PORT GIBSON TO CHURCH HILL
Breakfast at Collina Plantation Inn was set for 7:30am, so we couldn’t linger about. Scott brought out the coffee first, then a small bowl of fruit. Finally the main course of a banana rum French toast (I think!), with bacon—of course‚ and more fruit as garnish. Needless to say it was decadent and delicious. Tom dutifully cleaned his plate, and I erred on the side of bird-like eating with so much sugar in front of me! We visited with Scott a bit more about his transition from Minnesota to Mississippi, how he met his wife and their new life here now. Besides the Inn, he also has a Skeet Shooting Club he owns and operates, but it’s a simple life and quite a change from up north.
After breakfast and loading up the van, Tom and I headed back over to the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson, Mississippi where we were set to meet with Ed Lum, a riverboat captain who had just come off the river at Cairo the night before. Along with Ed joining us were his wife Margaret and his father Earl.
Up to this point in our journey, we’ve met with several folks in the towing industry, but never an active captain or pilot. Ed was able to give us the details of life on the river, day in and day out. He works 30 days on and 15 days off, and he’s been at this for 39 years. In 7 more years, he’ll take his retirement—being of age to take full social security benefits. He started as a deck hand, and we learned this is one trade where you really still have to start at the bottom to get to the top. That is, there’s no schooling or special tests that can get you out of those early years of hard (and sometimes risky) labor as a deck hand. The man with the pilot’s license needs to know how to tie a line just as well as anyone else.
Ed grew up loving to fish, waterski, and camp on the water around Lake Claiborne not far from Port Gibson, Mississippi. His father Earl was a cattle rancher in Vicksburg, and Ed grew up in Vicksburg most of his life. His wife Margaret is from Greenville, but feels the Delta has really changed. She and Ed have just recently moved to a home right on Lake Claiborne in a gated community—where they had planned to retire.
Back on the boat, Ed says there are 4-5 on his crew—they work 6 hours on and 6 hours off. He’s traveled the whole river—willow tree to willow tree. Ed can walk up to the pilot’s house and look at the light’s along the shoreline and know exactly where he is. While the landscape hasn’t changed that much, Ed says, some things have. Things are safer nowadays for river workers. You also have to teach new deck hands how to work because they don’t come prepared with basic skills like running a washing machine, etc.
As captain of the boat, Ed is in tune with everything going on. He hears the boat accelerate when he’s sleeping. When things are going smoothly, he can sleep. When the engines rev, he’s up. Ed says 95 percent of the time his river boat work is calm, followed by 5% terror. He wouldn’t really change anything about his life—on the river or off of it. He likes it just how it is. He can blow his horn from the river and Margaret can hear it. He can hear the hum of the boats from his home.
Ed had just finished his 30 days on, and was now ready for his 2 weeks off. We instead were still amidst our 120 days on, with about 3 and a half weeks to go. Today we rode our way down the Natchez Trace toward Church Hill, Mississippi, Mississippi. I arrived early waiting for Tom, sitting in a canopy of trees at the head of a road that went I knew not where. Literally. It was like a poem… I drove through this same landscape to get get there, one turn after another, a forested canopy of thick overgrowth, tree roots breaking through the earth forming a wall of foliage as high as I am. I was waiting there…
Tom arrived on bike, and we still had about a half hour before we needed to be at the home of Linda and George Bates. We drove around for a tour of the town, glimpsing five churches, two on top of hills. The landscape continues to be very wooded and rural here. Some cattle are grazing nearby. The roads are generally quiet, with an occasional pickup truck passing by.
We drove up to George and Linda’s place and were greeted in the driveway. We met their two dogs, Suzie and Lady, got settled in “the tiny house” just next to their’s, and then sat for lunch—chicken salad from donut shop across the river in Louisiana. Both their children, Martha and John, left the area for college and work and have only recently moved back in the vicinity. Martha is in Leland, Mississippi working in early childhood intervention, especially with populations that struggle to afford healthcare. John is a PhD in immunology now located in Madison, Mississippi.
The Bates live on Bates Road in Church Hill, named so because their family owned most of the property along the road. George’s family goes back some in these parts. He has a PhD in animal science, specifically focused on cattle feeding, and used to farm cotton and raise cattle here before deciding to lease out his land. He still retains the right to return to farming himself, if he wanted, as well as to take his son out hunting on the property. Linda says he will not be returning to cattle farming for sure—she was never much of a cowgirl, George says!
George’s plan for our afternoon involved bringing us down Bates Road to the adjoining Guedon Road in order to meet with Louis Guedon of Bluff Farm Supply. As we turned down the driveway, Tom and I noticed a row of dogs and kennels, later finding out that Louis raises them for cattle herding. He doesn’t use the feed bucket to herd cattle nor does he believe in leaving a few cows behind if they don’t quite make it. He’s an efficient rancher, and still uses the dog and horse method for herding, wrangling all his cattle in one maneuver. If he’s moving the cattle off that land, it’s likely because he’s ready to farm it, and he doesn’t want to have to wait another week to move four stragglers.
As we walked up to meet Louis, he also introduced us to his son Matthew and granddaughter Mary Noble. He says, “Matthew runs this business, and I see to it that it runs.” Grabbing a piece of paper out of Matthew’s hand, he says “is that an order,” and ends up carrying this with us for the next 15 minutes or so as he tours us around the warehouse at a break neck pace, meaning to put it on his clipboard all the while, and only finally remembering it in his hand and resolving the issue before we head out to the fields.
Louis’ great great grandfather got off a boat in Galveston, Texas in eighteen hundred and sixty one—he was 19 years old from France, a civilized country, says Louis, moving to a basically third world country in the civil war… That old man was named Emile, he named his son Louis, he named his son Louis, that Louis was Louis’ grandfather who named his first son Emile, that’s Louis’ daddy, and he named his first son Louis, that’s Louis himself, and he named his first son Emile, who was out on a tractor in the bottoms as we spoke, and this Emile named his first son Louis! It may sound biblical, but even more special in this deep lineage is the story of Charlie, son of Matthew, who at the young age of 4 year old, just six weeks before we met Louis and Matthew, died at the family farm supply shop in a tragic accident. He was already an accomplished horseman, herding the cattle of his grandfather. Now every 50lb. bag of feed or corn will bear the name “Charlie” in tribute to the young man.
In summer months, Louis’ Bluff Farm Supply produces seed, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, while in the fall and winer months, they focus on the deer hunter industry, retailing corn—they grow it, harvest it, dry it, sell it, mix it to blend with seed to specifications provided by the state. These deer are eating well. We tasted the rice meal and smelled the mix, like a harvest wheat pancake!
Louis’ family has been farming on the Mississippi River for a hundred and fifty plus years, continuously. His father of eighty-two years is still farming. As Louis says, “he’s seen the highest flood in the history of the world, the longest lasting flood in the history of this family, he’s seen the most floods in one year that there’s ever been, he’s seen the 500 year floods, he’s seen 200-300 year flood—and he’s got a ten year old grandson who’s seen all that too. The river is changing,” he went on. “It’s not like it used to be. And how it’s affecting us….” Elevation levels have shifted with the rising water levels, and what used to be a community that didn’t need a levee, now is a place very much in need of one. For the first 50 or 60 to 70 or even 130 years it didn’t bother us, says Louis, but now, it’s a problem. They lost 7,000 acres of crops this year. When they lose that kind of acreage it’s a killer. “Your notes go right on, your overhead goes right on, your insurance goes right on, your land tax goes right on, all that goes right on and you’re getting no income. No income. And you’ve got to keep it clean and out of the weeds to get it ready for a crop for next year so you’re in debt.”
Now was time to stop just talking about the fields and go have a look at them. We climbed in Louis’ truck and headed over to his house to grab his rifle (and a few beers for the road)… Now Louis is already packing a sidearm—a pistol he’s been carrying everywhere he goes since age 14. When asked why, Louis proceeded to pick up a large smooth stone from the ground, dust it off, then toss it out several yards, pull his pistol out of its holster and shoot at the rock… “I’m usually turning big rocks into little rocks, that’s what I usually do with it, k? I just like to shoot it… But you’ll see, when we get down here, there are no hard surface roads, there are no permanent buildings, there are,” and he’s shaking his head, “when the water’s over it, it looks like the Amazon, and this is just like it was a hundred years ago down there. So you’re gonna see a water moccasin or wild hog, and sometimes you need your pistol—and you don’t need one till you need one RIGHT NOW.” And just as we finished speaking, and shooting, a customer drives up…
Back to the story of the rifle though. Louis was taking us out to his fields in the bottoms. We ran into his son Emile who was working on rebuilding a levee to protect the land from a backwater creek. The rifle came along to protect against long range sightings of wild hogs, but turned into a shooting lesson for me and Tom. Louis got really excited to learn that neither of us had ever shot an AR-15 assault rifle, that semi-automatic rifle you read so much about in the news these days. Tom has shot plenty of guns in his youth when grouse hunting, but my first handling of any such weapon was several weeks ago in Prairie du Rocher, firing an unloaded historic French Musket at Fort du Chartres. I think that might not count! Anyhow, Louis guided me through pulling the trigger, gun unloaded, several times, to get the feel of it. Then it was time to really shoot. Emile loaded a single shot, handed the gun back to me—turns out I’m a left handed shooter because I’m left eye dominant… this was a true shooting lesson, as I worked on getting a leaf on the opposite side of the creek embankment lined up in my crosshairs. After about three efforts, I hit the target. Walking away from this experience, I still don’t know how I feel about guns, much less the AR-15, but I do know that Louis Geudon, a man very fond of his guns, is a good man in many respects, and I’d share another shooting lesson (over a beer) with him again any time.
Later back at Linda and George’s house, we gathered around a table to share in George’s “Christmas Roast!” Louis and his wife, Pastor Mike and a friend of his, Al, from in town, Linda and George, and of course me and Tom. As dessert rolled round—pecan pie or lemon chess, your choice!—Louis’ other son Lee stopped by with two of his daughters. Lee lives just across the field from George and Linda, having purchased some land from them a few years back. They say he’s like having a second son around.
It was hard to break from this lively group, but once more we needed to rest. Tom and I retired to the “tiny house,” tucked in, and prepared for another day.